How Does a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree Increase Your Earning Potential

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 Monday, August 9, 2021 01:00 PM

When asked why they’re seeking a college degree, adult learners offer many reasons. Some want to pursue their passion. Some want to earn a specific job title. And some want to forge a new career path. But at some point, all adult learners ask themselves the same question: Can I really increase my earning potential with a degree?

To help adult students find the answer, we dove into the research. And no matter how you look at the data, achieving a bachelor’s or master’s degree will indeed increase the average student’s earning potential. By how much? Let’s dive into the numbers and find out.

Weekly earnings for college graduates

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks the earning potential of a degree by median weekly earnings for workers ages 25 and older. Their most recent findings from 2019, which BLS published in May 2020, show that adults with bachelor’s degrees will earn $502 more per week on average than people with only a high school diploma. Adults with master’s degrees will earn nearly twice as much per week on average than those with a high school diploma.

Here’s the full breakdown:

Median Usual Weekly Earnings by Education Attainment, 2019

Education LevelWeekly Earnings 
High school diploma $746
Some college $833
Associate's  $887
Bachelor's $1,248
Master's  $1,497

Yearly earnings for college graduates

Now, what happens if you take those weekly figures, extrapolate them out over an entire calendar year and figure in taxes? The College Board did the math for us. They release an annual Education Pays report. The most recent one, released in 2019 and based on 2018 data, show that adults with bachelor’s degrees will earn $24,900 more after taxes per year than adults with only a high school education. Adults with master’s degrees will earn $39,700 more per year than those with a high school diploma.

Here’s the breakdown:

After-Tax Income of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers Ages 25 and Older

Education LevelYearly Earnings
High school diploma $40,500
Some college $46,300
Associate's $50,100
Bachelor's $65,400
Master's  $80,200

While there’s variation in earnings at each level of degree a student earns, earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree increases the likelihood of adults earning $100,000 or more per year at some point in their career. According to Education Pays, 43% of advanced degree holders aged 35 to 44 earned $100,000 or more in 2018. That’s compared to 28% of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 5% of people with a high school diploma.

Earnings for people with degrees based on major

A student’s major will impact his or her potential career earnings. The Education Pays report broke down median earnings of early career and mid-career college graduates who have a bachelor’s degree. For purposes of the chart below, early-career means ages 22 to 27, while mid-career means ages 35-45.

Top 10 Majors Based on Median Earnings of Early-Career and Mid-Career College Graduates

Computer Science $62,000 $95,000
Physics $48,500 $94,500
Economics $55,000 $90,000
Business Analytics $57,000 $88,000
Finance $52,000 $85,000
Mathematics $50,000 $80,000
Political Science $42,000 $75,000
Marketing $42,000 $74,000
Chemistry $41,000 $74,000
Accounting $50,000 $72,000

Not surprisingly, many of the majors listed above are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-related fields. Trailing right behind the top 10 majors are nursing, general business, communications, all three of which have mid-career median earnings of $70,000. On average, people with bachelor’s degrees will earn $40,000 per year in their early career and $68,000 per year by mid-career.

How earning a degree impacts your career possibilities

Clearly, the data show how bachelor’s and master’s degree attainment will increase your earnings potential. Experts advise adults that the best time to start their education is now. According to a July 2020 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, delaying enrollment for one year can cost a year’s worth of wages over your lifetime.

The benefits of adult education go far beyond earnings. BLS statistics show that unemployment rates for people with master’s (2%) and bachelor’s (2.2%) degrees are lower than the unemployment rate of people with only a high school diploma (3.7%). 

And while attaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree as an adult doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a pay increase, it does improve your negotiating power. In general, employers view workers with bachelor’s or master’s degrees as having a greater level of subject matter knowledge. 

Employers also know that college graduates, including many from the Muhlenberg College School of Continuing Studies, work on solving real-world business problems during their courses of study. College graduates offer skills like discipline, goal setting and collaboration that employers desire.

Earning a degree even helps adults live healthier. According to Education Pays, 64% of adults with bachelor’s degrees and 70% of those with advanced degrees receive year-round, employer-provided health benefits compared to 52% of people with only high school diplomas. Higher levels of education are also correlated with lower smoking rates and higher levels of physical activity.

For benefits to your mind, body and income, earning a bachelor’s or a master’s degree remains a wise choice. Start today.

Interested in learning more about the Muhlenberg College School of Continuing Studies?

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About the Muhlenberg College School of Continuing Studies
For more than 100 years, Muhlenberg College’s School of Continuing Studies has provided lifelong learners the opportunity to continue and enhance their education in ways that recognize their experience, maturity, motivation, life circumstances and capacity for independent scholarship. Through a rich variety of certificates and baccalaureate degrees, the School of Continuing Studies aligns a rigorous, high-quality and student-centric curriculum with the needs and trends of our regional economy.